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A libertarian Marx ? Daniel Guerin

Tuesday 10 February 2009, by Robert Paris

Marx’s famous address The Civil War in France, written in the name of the General Council of the International Working Men Association two days after the crushing of the Paris Commune, is an inspiring text for Libertarians. Writing in the name of the International in which Bakunin had extensive influence, in it Marx revises some passages of the Communist Manifesto of 1848. In the Manifesto Marx and Engels had developed the notion of a proletarian evolution by stages. The first stage would be the conquest of political power, thanks to which the instruments of production, means of transport and credit system, would ‘by degrees’, be centralised in the hands of the State. Only after a long evolution, at a time when class antagonisms have disappeared and State power has lost its political nature, only then would all production be centered in the hands of ‘associated individuals’ instead of in the hands of the State. In this later libertarian type of association the free development of each would be the condition for the free development of all.

Bakunin, unlike French socialists, had been familiar with the Communist Manifesto in its original German since 1848 and didn’t miss a chance to criticise the way in which the revolution had been split into two stages – the first of which would be very strongly State controlled.He put it like this:

“Once the State has installed itself as the only landowner ... it will also be the only capitalist, banker, moneylender, organiser and director of all the nations work and distributor of its products. THIS is the ideal, the fundamental principle of modern communism.”

What’s more:

“This revolution will consist of the expropriation, either by stages or by violence, of the current landowners and capitalists, and of the appropriation of all land and capital by the State, which, so as to fulfil its great mission in both economic and political spheres, will necessarily have to be very powerful and highly centralised. With its hired engineers, and with disciplined armies of rural workers at its command, the State will administer and direct the cultivation of the land. At the same time it will set up in the ruins of all the existing banks, one single bank to oversee all production and every aspect of the nation’s commerce.”

And again:

“We are told that in Marx’s people’s State there will be no privileged class. Everyone will be equal, not just legally end politically, but from the economic point of view. At least that’s the promise, although I doubt very much, considering the way they go about it and their proposed method, whether it’s a promise that can ever be kept. Apparently there will no longer be a privileged class, but there will be a government, and, note this well, an exceedingly complicated government, which would not simply govern and administer the masses in a political sense, as all present governments do, but which would also administer the economy, by concentrating in its own hands production, the fair distribution of wealth, the farming of the land, the establishment and development of trades, the organisation and control of commerce, and lastly the application of capital to production through the only banker, the State.”

Goaded by Bakunin’s criticisms, Marx and Engels felt the need to correct the overly statist ideas they had held in 1848. In a preface to a new edition of the Manifesto, dated 24 June 1872, they agreed that ‘in many respects’ they would give a ‘different wording’ to the passage in question of the 1848 text. They claimed support for this revision in (among others) “the practical experience gained first in the February Revolution (1848), and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months.” They concluded that “This programme has in some details become antiquated.” One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” And the 1871 Address proclaimes that the Commune is “the final discovery of the political form by which the economic emancipation of labour may be created.”

In his biography of Karl Marx, Franz Mehring also stresses that on this point The Civil War in France, to a certain extent, revises the Manifesto in which the dissolution of the State was certainly foreseen, but only as a long-term process. But later, after the death of Marx, Lehning assures us that Engels, struggling with Anarchist currents, had to drop this corrective and go back to the old ideas of the Manifesto.

The slightly over-rapid volte-face of the writer of the 1871 Address was always bound to arouse Bakunin’s scepticism; He wrote of the Commune:

“It had such a great effect everywhere that even the Marxists, whose ideas had been proven wrong by the insurrection, found that they had to lift their hats respectfully to it. They did more; contrary to the simplest logic and to their own true feelings, they proclaimed that its programme and aim were theirs too. This was a farcical misrepresentation, but it was necessary. They had to do it – otherwise they would have been completely overwhelmed and abandoned, so powerful was the passion this revolution had stirred in everyone.”

Bakunin also observed:

“It would appear that Engels, at the Hague Congress (Sept. 1872) was afraid of the terrible impression created by some pages of the Manifesto, and eagerly declared that this was an outdated document, whose ideas they (Marx & Engels) had personally abandoned. If he did say this, then he was lying, for just before the Congress the Marxists had been doing their best to spread this document into every country.”

James Guillaume, Bakunin’s disciple in the Jura Federation, reacted to reading the 1871 Address in similar terms:

“This is an astonishing declaration of principle, in which Marx seems to have thrown over his own programme in favour of Federalist ideas. Has their been a genuine conversion of the author of Das Capital, or has he at any rate succumbed to a momentary enthusiasm under the force of events? Or was it a ploy, aimed at using apparent adherence to the programme of the Commune to gain the benefit of the prestige inseparable from that name?”

In our own day, Arthur Lehning, to whom we owe the learned edition of the Bakunin Archives – which are still being published – has also emphasised the contradiction between the ideas in the Address and those of all Marx’s other writings:

“It is an irony of history that at the very moment when the struggle between the authoritarian and anti-authoritarian factions in the 1st International had reached its height, Marx, influenced by the enormous effect of the Parisian proletariat’s revolutionary uprising, had given voice to the ideas of that revolution, (which were the very opposite of those he represented) in such a way that one might call them the programme of the anti-authoritarian faction which (in the International) he was fighting by all means possible ... There can be no doubt that the brilliant Address of the General Council ... can find no place in the system of ‘scientific socialism’. The Civil War is extremely un-marxist ... The Paris Commune had nothing in common with Marx’s State Socialism, but was much closer to Proudhon’s ideas and Bakunin’s federalist theories ... According to Marx, the basic principle of the Commune was that the political centralism of the State had to be replaced with the workers governing themselves, and by the devolution of initiative onto a federation of small autonomous units, until such time as it was possible to put trust in the State ... The Paris Commune did not aim at letting the State

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